Tiny Cities



Dad had always been a mystery to me. He had a smile for everyone, would pitch up to help anyone who asked, and sometimes if they didn’t. He held himself at a quiet remove from everyone, focused on his responsibilities but also his activities in the workshop at the bottom of the garden. No one was allowed in there, not even Mom. We were intrigued, then resentful then finally accepting of the fact that he needed space to be himself. Not Dad or Husband, but a man who would spend time alone, engaged in some task he found more fascinating than anyone or anything else.

His death unmanned us. A twelve month slide into the degradation of cancer, a pain so unsurmountable, that at various stages, we all wished for it to end whilst hoping for a miracle or enough time to say what we needed to say whilst he had the clarity to understand and perhaps respond.

As the bureaucracy of death demanded a response, so it was left to me to undergo the business of sorting through his possessions. His will had left everything to me, aside from enough for a round of drinks at the local pub where we held the wake for him. Complete strangers came up and told me what a wonderful man he had been. I did not have the heart to say that, to me, he was a loving stranger.

Yet he left me the key to his workshop.

It was a good time to be distracted. Grief had been as transformative as it was destructive, and I had extricated myself from a marriage relatively unscathed. There was not anyone involved except the person I had become, and the ambiguity made everything more painful than it might have been. Clearing away Dad’s things, finally seeing inside the workshop gave me things to get me through.

The house still carried the scent of him, sandalwood, sawdust and the dark tobacco he was perfumed with. Mum had gone a few years before him, but her presence was as tangible as his. In the dusty silence, I wept for them and for myself. It passed, a spasm that gets worked out like a cramp does. I had selected a few items, some photographs, a deck of cards that he used to play euchre with. He was lonely and respected in the way all men aim to be. I hoped that I had inherited some of that from him.

He had managed to be himself and stay married. It was a skill I had yet to learn, and the thought turned in my stomach like a knife, so I decided to do what I had really come here for.


The workshop had been built and tended to with a large amount of care, which was how he showed his love. We were never allowed in there and with each step, the key in my breast pocket grew heavier. My fingers were damp with sweat but the key fitted into the lock and turned with a crisp click. My heart stopped for a moment, and then, I pushed the door open and stepped inside.

My presence triggered the lights overhead. UV fluorescents, and for a second, I wondered if he had been going cannabis in here. What the lights revealed was something entirely different.

A city, with motifs and landmarks borrowed from the great cities of the world. Lights twinkled in waves, a horizontal constellation of stars that made me stagger backwards. My eyes grew damp with an absurd burst of wonder exploding in my chest.

It floated in a large pond of bubbling luminescent water, and I saw the cables disappear into it, the colour and consistency of licorice. At the bottom they were twisted into mandalas of connection, wrapped in clear plastic. I heard the beep of a car horn and looked back at the city.

Saw that people were moving down there.

Where there had been light, now there was sound and activity.

A cliche of mental breakdowns is a florid disconnect with reality. In my experience, it had been too much reality that caused mine, but as the city came to life, and I watched it with a vantage point known only to drones and gods, I was unnerved and delighted with equal measure.

I squatted in front of it, saw a couple leave a hotel lobby and kiss one another with want and sadness. They were no larger than the period at the end of a sentence, but they lived, laughed and moved as perfectly as any human being.

The rush of blood and excitement made me dizzy as I stood up but I kept breathing.

Kept looking.

I laughed and shook my head.

‘Oh Dad.’

He would never be able to explain it to me. What was I supposed to do with it? I yearned to have him there, showing me his work and how he did it. I walked back to it, looking at an ornate skyscraper, fringed with an observation deck

A woman stood on its fence, toes resting over the edge as she looked down. I leaned forward, fascinated and horrified by what I was seeing.

The wind whipped her auburn hair about her face. She clung to the rail, her emerald eyes staring out at nothing.

Until she saw me.

She went white with shock and her face twisted into an expression of disbelief. She slipped, and on instinct, I reached out and caught her in the palm of my hand. The impact registered as a warm gust of breath across my hand and it tickled when she scrabbled to stand up.

She spoke but I could not understand her. I was no physicist, more like an unreconstructed nerd, armed with pop culture references and loose supposition. I sought to keep my voice as soft as possible because of the physics, but I knew better than anyone that words can hurt.


She looked at me, folded her arms around her chest. I strained to capture the details of her features. She chewed her bottom lip and her pert nose wrinkled with confusion and awe. The economy of scale between us swallowed her words like oysters.

I wasn’t sure I had done the right thing here. She stared at me, and I wondered how my face looked to her. Like Mount Rushmore coming to life.

She leaned over, sobbing so hard her shoulders shook as she stood there in the palm of my hand.

I looked around me, panicked as to what to do next. Dad’s tools were mounted on the wall, in perfect order and maintained to remain almost new no matter how long he had them. There did not appear to be anything that would help me communicate with this woman.

Then I saw the envelope.

It had my name written on it in his neat, ordered handwriting. I put the woman down on the worktop and opened it.

‘I promise, as soon as I figure out what the fuck to do, I will.’

I should have started this sooner. My work here probably tests your sanity. It certainly did mine. This is what I spent my time doing. All men should have a purpose, and this was mine. I do not know if you have found yours. I kept all your poems and stories, and I figured in time, you might figure out what it is you were meant to do with your life. You care about people. This would be a perfect way to practice that.
There is a journal in the top drawer. It will tell you everything you need to know. There are also a set of headphones that you can listen to them until you put the suit together.

I love you and I was always proud of you.

I turned and stared at her. It was pointless to talk to her so I opened the drawer. A scuffed leather journal and a pair of headphones held together with electrical tape and connected to an ovoid piece of metal. I put the headphones on and slipped the metal device into my pocket.

‘What I don’t get is why you think this is in any way okay?”

I turned. Her voice rang in my ears as clear as a bell.

She stared at me.

‘Oh Jesus, you heard me?’

I smiled. Her voice had a bustling, rural quality to it that I liked immediately.

‘Not quite, although I am you know, His Son.’

Her name was Dawn.

The city was called Predestination. It had been discovered in Eighth Summer. I imagined that he would explain it to me in the journal. If not, then I would figure it out for herself. I grew nervous at the thought of her asking questions, but when I offered to put her back where I found her, she blushed and shook her head.

She asked if she could be put on the ground instead.

I decanted her back on the sidewalk. She waved to me, grinning with a sweetness that made my heart ache like it had eaten too much candy. I left the lights on. I would be back.

I walked outside to meet the night that had fallen. I held the journal to my chest and looked up at the sky.

‘I won’t let you down.’


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